The condition of labour and democracy under the state of emergency in Turkey

Turkey’s AKP government is using the state of emergency to curtail labour rights and introduce regressive economic reforms

MehmetFollowing the failed coup on 15 July by supporters of the Gülenist movement within the army, Turkey’s ruling political Islamist AKP government introduced a state of emergency with an ‘aim of taking swift and effective steps required to eliminate the threat against the democracy, rule of law and the rights and freedoms of the citizens’. The government declared that the state of emergency was ‘not against the people, but against the state’. Initially announced for three months but extended for another three months until January 20th 2017, President Erdoğan has now implied it could be extended further.

In contrast to the government’s ostensible aims, the picture since the announcement of the state of emergency is quite bleak for Turkey’s ‘democracy, rule of law and the rights and freedoms of its citizens’. On the night of the coup attempt, President Erdoğan called the developments a ‘gift from God’ as they would provide justification and legitimacy for restructuring the state and society and achieving his ‘high political goals’. Under the state of emergency, the AKP rules by decree and the role of parliament has been undermined further.  Governmental decrees have been used to cleanse dissidents from state cadres and silence opposition forces; not only the putschists.  Such decisions are final: the Consitutional Court has declared it will not audit these decrees so any reversals are at the government’s mercy.  Within this political context, the ultimate aim of President Erdoğan is to ‘constitutionalise’ this de facto situation and introduce an executive presidency where he, in his words, can run the country like a business and supplant the ‘many-voiced’ parliamentary system.

Since the declaration of the state of emergency, violations of basic rights have been widespread: from arbitrary dismissals to torture claims and the further narrowing of press freedom and freedom of expression. Many dissident journalists and writers have been arrested and the leaders (including MPs and mayors) of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party have also been arrested and are in prison. The government is debating re-introducing the death penalty and an ultra-nationalist and extremely authoritarian discourse confronts critical thinking and dissident voices.

Within this authoritarian political climate state-labour relations are also being significantly restructured. Over 100,000 public sector workers (teachers, academics, judges, civil servants, army and police staff) were dismissed in the purge that followed the coup. These dismissals targeted not only the putschists or alleged followers of Gülen, but included members of the unions organised under the left-wing Confederation of Public Employees Trade Unions (KESK).  Approximately 10,000 teachers who are members of the left-wing Education and Science Workers Union (Eğitim-Sen) were also dismissed; only half were allowed to return to duty recently. The government has started to hire new teachers to fill vacant posts, however newly hired teachers are being employed on temporary contracts, rather than on a permanent basis like their dismissed predecessors.  This paves the way for further precariousness in the education sector.  In the university sector, many signatories of the ‘infamous’ ‘Academics for Peace’ declaration from earlier this year have also been sacked.

Since the announcement of the state of emergency, workers’ protests across Turkey have been confronted with intensified police repression, detention, and arbitrary actions by employers  that rely on the current ‘securitised’ atmosphere.  Furthermore, the government has introduced regulations on labour relations via statutory decrees which have nothing to do with the underlying reasons behind the state of emergency.  For example, decree No. 678 issued on 22 November means that strikes in public transportation in metropolitan municipalities and the banking sector can be ‘postponed’ by the government, if they are deemed threatening to ‘general health’ and ‘national security’ and, in the banking sector, if they are threatening ‘economic and financial stability’. This shows how workers’ rights are being subordinated to profitability and financial accumulation imperatives in the banking sector via the force of the state of emergency.

Moreover, the term ‘postponement’ is dubious because it really means the cancellation of the strike. Under the current legislation, the strike can be postponed for 60 days, but is not automatically permitted again after that period.  For this to happen, the administrative jurisdiction needs to inhibit or cancel the government’s decision; otherwise, postponement means indefinite cancellation.  We also have to note that just before decree 678 was issued there was a significant strike by İzmir Metropolitan Municipality public transport workers which lasted for 8 days (8-16 November) and involved 340 workers. The AKP government did not lose any time in preventing such a thing happening again and did not hesitate to do so using its state of emergency powers.

The ban on strikes in metropolitan municipality public transport services and the banking sector was first imposed by union legislation of the military dictatorship of the 1980s and was kept in new legislation introduced by the AKP in 2012. The Constitutional Court found this to be against constitutional rights in 2014 and lifted the ban.  Now, however, as mentioned earlier, the very same court has decided not to audit governmental decrees issued under the state of emergency.  This means the Constitutional Court is effectively allowing the AKP to make regulations against its previous verdicts in a situation where there are now no legal channels to reverse decisions like this.

There have also been important developments in economic policy since the failed coup attempt, with detrimental effects on labour. The already fragile economy was showing signs of serious stagnation and contraction following the coup.  The Turkish Lira has constantly lost value and hit record lows since then and this has been combined with ratings cuts from credit rating agencies. Official unemployment increased to 11.3 per cent and there was a sharp decline in industrial production. Finally, it was revealed that the Turkish economy contracted for the first time since 2009, in Q3 of 2016.

One of the early responses of the AKP government to these developments was to create a Sovereign Wealth Fund in order to fund the ‘big projects’ of the government; the reality was that Turkey – having current account and budget deficits – had no material basis to create such a fund which would otherwise inescapably entail transfers from labour to capital in various ways (such as revenues drawn from privatisation and the Unemployment Insurance Fund). The Sovereign Wealth Fund will also operate without parliamentary scrutiny and audits by the Turkish Court of Accounts.  Another measure has been to introduce a new compulsory private pension system for wage earners, which paves the way for privatisation in the pension system. Government officials argue that this will help increase low-level savings in the economy; however, the reason why savings are low is because wages have been stagnant.  Many workers increasingly rely on debt to compensate stagnant wages (the household debt to disposable income ratio increased to over 50 per cent in 2014, from 7.5 per cent in 2003). In the wake of the coup and against a backdrop of decreasing demand, the government has loosened constraints on borrowing for households and extended repayment periods for credit cards and consumer loans, thus encouraging further financialisation and greater indebtedness. More recently, the Economic Coordination Council declared new measures in order to remove barriers to accumulation which were welcomed by business.

In general, these changes to economic policy have not been made through governmental decrees.  Yet the government has been able to make them because the general authoritarian atmosphere serves to reduce societal, political and legal challenges. Management of the economy was highly insulated from democratic pressures and interventions even before the state of emergency thanks to the technocratic-authoritarian restructuring of the early 2000s. However, the state of emergency further strengthened this de-democratised structure and functions to limit opposition to this economic restructuring.

Overall, then, the picture for labour and democracy in Turkey since July is bleak. Workers’ and unions’ rights are being curtailed, whilst under the cover of the state of emergency the government is regressively restructuring the economy, with the burden being placed upon workers.  It is highly uncertain about what will happen beyond 20 January, but what is clear so far is that the experience of democratic forces in Turkish society under the state of emergency has proved to be very painful indeed.